When we think of a National Park Service Park Ranger, the image in the minds of most Americans is extremely pleasant. We think of a gentle giant with a chiseled chin under the legendary "Smokey Bear" style hat who’s friendly and inviting. We have visions of a perfectly fitting, pristine uniform with a shiny badge and a hearty smile offering a friendly reminder to be careful with our campfires, don’t feed the bears, and watch out for poison ivy.
Andrea Lankford had a similar image of the job when she joined the Park Service as a law enforcement ranger in the early 1990’s. However, after 12-years her attitude toward the job radically changed. She documents the transformation in her new book "Ranger Confidential."
"The job changed me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I saw a lot of tragedy in law enforcement and search and rescue," said Lankford on a recent edition of West Virginia Outdoors. "I think the main inspiration for me writing this book was to let people know what a Ranger’s job is really like. They think you’re just out there hiking and smelling the flowers and gazing at meadows. I really wanted to tell the true story of what it was like to live, work, and die in a National Park."
Lankford’s collection of tales turns the long held image of Rangers and the Park Service itself on its ear. The book guides you through her personal experiences working in Yosemite and
Author: Andrea Lankford
"Yosemite, Yellowstone, and
Dealing with drunk and disorderly park employees is one thing, but it’s quite another when dangerous criminals pick the vast and remote National Park system as a hideout from the law.
"Criminals like to go on vacation too," Lankford said. "There’s a story in Ranger Confidential about Danny Ray Horning, a homicidal fugitive that basically held the
Aside from dealing with drunks and fugitive killers, “we the people” can often be just as grating on a Ranger’s nerves with stupid decisions.
Over time, Lankford says she became more sympathetic to park visitors because they were usually urban folks who were just out of their element.
One of the more irritating problems for Rangers is indignant guests who like to throw around the "taxpayer line", constantly reminding the NPS personnel they are on our payroll. While it may be true, Lankford explains Rangers take a lot of unnecessary blame for issues over which they have little control.
"I certainly don’t blame people for getting frustrated with the federal government. I did
"The Grand Canyon will chew up Rangers and spit them out" — Andrea Lankford
too," Lankford explained. "On the other hand, your Park Ranger who is out there trying to give a tour or perform a rescue, you can’t lay all of the blame on them. They’re just out there trying to make a living like you are."
Lankford spins tragic tales of search and rescue, spine-tingling stories of extreme situations which often don’t include the happy ending we remembered from the Walt Disney movies of the 1950’s. More than once, Lankford notes body bags are the first thing packed amid the rescue gear. Readers can see a bit of the Ranger’s soul slipping away as the body counts climb during a career.
The book truly tells two stories–the extremely personal toll Rangers endure. The second parallel story is the NPS history of extremely poor management. Rangers are forced to live in squalor provided by the federal government in housing resembling a Third-World Country. Ranger pay rivals poverty wages when compared to equal levels in other federal agencies and balanced against job requirements. Staffing levels in the NPS parks are woefully inadequate as Congress constantly uses NPS protection as a pork-barrel tool for the folks "back home."
"I don’t always blame Congress. When I worked for the park service our leaders always passed the blame to Congress, but it’s not that black and white anymore. Park managers have a duty to spend their budgets more wisely." she said. "There’s also a lot of waste. There’s a lot of money that’s spent in an improper way."
Lankford today makes her home near Yosemite in California. Pictured here along the Appalachian Trail, she says since leaving the NPS, there have been improvements, but many of the same disconnects between the field and Washington remain for Park Rangers.
Among the examples cited by Lankford in the book a $300,000 outhouse in
Lankford’s message in the book is two-fold.
"I hope they have a better appreciation for what their park rangers are doing for them and their visitors." Lankford concludes. "Two, I want them to still enjoy parks and go visit, but to respect the National Parks and the warning signs to they don’t have to see a Ranger working under the conditions I describe in the book first hand."